Program Components

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Designed to prepare students to be successful scientific leaders, Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s Ph.D. program in comprises a hands-on, scientifically rigorous and well-rounded inquiry-based approach. The program consists of:


Students complete eight, four-week modules in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, genetics and epigenetics, bioinformatics and pathophysiology before selecting the laboratory in which they will complete their dissertation research. Through this approach, students acquire specific knowledge to address complex research questions and the skills to locate and evaluate the concepts, models and evidence that already exist in scientific literature.

Ph.D. degree course requirements
The Graduate School’s curriculum is designed to train students to think like scientists through a problem-based approach. Most seminar-style courses are completed in the first two years of study, followed by a heavily research-focused approach during years three through five. For a sample year-by-year schedule, please visit the Academics page.

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Research rotations

New students complete three, seven-week rotations in Van Andel Research Institute laboratories prior to selecting a thesis adviser. These rotations give students keen insight into the different types of research underway at the Institute and help identify students’ particular area of interest.

Comprehensive examination

The comprehensive examination is completed in the second year of the VAIGS program. Students write a proposal outlining the background, preliminary results and experimental plan for their thesis research. Students also draft a second proposal to explore an additional, non-thesis research question. During an oral examination, faculty members test the student’s knowledge of concepts and methods in their field of study as well as the student’s critical analysis skills.

Thesis research

The completion of an original and creative research project resulting in the compilation of a doctoral dissertation is the capstone to doctoral degree programs. The dissertation demonstrates that the student has the knowledge, skill and scientific maturity to design and conduct independent research of a quality consistent with reports published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. A VAIGS faculty member serves as the principle thesis advisor for this research. Other faculty serve on the student’s thesis advisory committee, which meets at least twice annually to review and evaluate progress and plans for dissertation work.

Seminars, Journal Clubs and research reports

VAIGS students meet weekly for a seminar that alternates between presentations of research in progress and presentations on new papers in scientific literature. Students are expected to attend each week and to present at this seminar at least once each year.

Van Andel Research Institute also convenes a separate weekly seminar on research underway in the Institute’s labs. These internal presentations are supplemented by the VARI Seminar Series and the Jay Van Andel Seminar Series, which bring outstanding scientists from around the world to the Institute to give a scientific talk. Students are encouraged to attend these seminars and to meet with the visiting scientists to discuss their research and their scientific career path.

Professional development

The Graduate School’s curriculum is bolstered by workshops and training sessions to facilitate the transition from graduate student to professional scientist. These events include guidance and training in writing and reviewing grants and manuscripts, oral presentation skills, financial and personnel management, conflict resolution, and leadership and team-building skills. Additionally, each VAIGS student is allowed $2,000 annually to attend national or international meetings relevant to their field of study.

Teaching experience

Given that many scientists serve as faculty at institutions of higher education, training in teaching of science at the college level is available depending on student interest. Teaching experiences are coordinated with local colleges and universities that offer appropriate courses in which the VAIGS student can serve as a teaching assistant, with instruction and supervision by experienced faculty.

Clinical studies

Effective translational research requires familiarity with both basic science and clinical applications. To develop this understanding, VAIGS students can attend clinical Grand Rounds or Tumor Board meetings at area hospitals. Students with appropriate medical training may also undertake more extensive clinical rotations and clinical research projects.

VAIGS is proud to offer a joint M.D./Ph.D. program in collaboration with Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Learn more here.